The West |

Thirty-Nine Messages for C: Lucy As Catastrophe

by Emily McLaughlin

edited by Lisa Locascio

Lucy booked a new commercial—Dr. Scholl’s and they would shoot her from the ankle down. I told her a foot on TV was better than none of her on TV. I felt bad for her. Lucy’s comeback was her idea, not her agent’s. She wouldn’t give up on herself. I had. I’d realized that no matter how many shows you work on, you would never live the lead character’s life. She was moving to Australia, to shoot twenty-four episodes of a cable show and without her, I was out of places to go to next. I couldn’t decide if I should stay. But according to Lucy, I would live in LA until I went extinct.

The casting company called late. She was out by four AM. I barely heard her tiptoe out like the tide. I ate a banana to coat my stomach for my flu shot appointment. I’d had a dream the rain was black, and it was you who had called, to apologize.

Lucy’s always been dying to die in a film. When we left Vermont, she was supposed to shoot that straight-to-video horror threequel her father arranged in Australia, but when she got there, she got recast. She told me in Australia the contrast between land and water was vivid. Her skin kept that shade of golden retriever so in a crowd, I knew where she was. My own wrists turned pink with car window sunburn.

She had to live in a neighborhood that made her feel like a pioneer. Our house was a stucco pillbox her father kept in his pocket for investment. Her parents had one in Ojai, where we meditated on sand cliffs until our thoughts were perfect, even though we were remembering song lyrics with our eyes closed while our horses got saddled. She wanted me to open her bills, water her plants. That was our original arrangement when we came out here and it was supposed to last as long as a stomachache. But we lived together so long that our periods began to arrive in the same week of every month.

The preservatives in my flu shot were making me nauseous. I got one in order to go into set an hour late. My nurse had jade eye shadow and clip-on earrings. She reminded me of your mother. Her nametag said Ann Cindy. She looked more like a Cindy, with her papier-mâchéd face. Women looked like their middle names. I offered up my bad arm like wet tissue paper. My shoulder still burned from the ski accident.

Rotator cuffs were rotator cuffs. Snow was snow. You were supposed to bury yourself in it for warmth. You and your boyfriend had assured me that it was safe to collect my mitten off the closed down maintenance trail. He was on the ski patrol and knew which trails were safe. I believed him. You both knew I was doomed, the moment I dug my poles in and descended for it.

Lucy had insisted we send you a postcard when we got here. I refused and locked the skylights.

I substituted work for another vice. I was a locations scout for a TV show. I picked the bars for cop showdowns, waterfalls for sex scenes. It was union work and I was head of the department. I spent my days skimming Sepulveda or calling the assistant director, who was usually enchanting but married and all leather up close. Their wives looked like their mothers, and had no ambitions. They showed up in windpants and nannies.

Young and old people in locations were trying to break into the creative jobs, waiting for a spot to open up when someone would go back to their high school sweetheart in Iowa. I liked my position, although it was less respected than casting. Three USC grads drove around with me in a caravan with clipboards of 405 exits to drive to next. If we were back from a scout, we swung by the dub stage, or if they were still shooting, we ate the craft service and drank at the set bar they stocked with beer in real life. The make-up ladies loved to psychoanalyze the veteran directors who sexually harassed us because they thought a woman was created to feel desired. On the worst day of pre-production, the showrunner rode in our van for the tech scout. He talked about me to my face to not let me into the conversation. One time, he’d caught me pulling into the lot with a towel turban still in my hair. I tried to hate him, but he would get me every year when he came in for our holiday party with a festive shirt, and couldn’t decide between tucked or untucked. The parties were really for the below the line crew. The above the line didn’t tell us what they do on weekends. I knew he would’ve laughed if he saw the masterpiece I scotch-taped to every storefront in Rancho Cucamonga.

Dear Storeowners: Because your neighborhood is the epitome of what our screenwriter has described in caps as “the last hole on earth you’d want to live,” we have decided to use your main street to film our showdown. Please follow the detour.

Most of our viewers were middle-aged Christian women in Middle America, waiting for the characters to take their shirts off. My name rolled in the credits on Channel Five at nine. Wednesday. Lucy’s commercial aired on the same network.

A lot of actors did Toastmasters. Lucy quit once she heard about the written homework but I was intrigued. We gave speeches and our weekly topic was Messages: Unsent. We could even read a love note off a napkin, as long as we spoke for the time minimum and projected.

One night, Lucy pointed at the stars from our veranda and said the atmosphere has skin. I was thinking of my shot already—I said, it’s full of rash.

In the distance, I heard our neighbors Dave and Carr enticing their dates inside their house, claiming they had a view of the Pacific from their terrace if you looked for long enough. They preyed on girls who seemed uncomfortable in their own skin. They used to climb up to our place in the evenings for a beer. Lucy would float candles in the tub, make the bathroom intimate. Some nights, we undid our bikini tops in the hot tub. Carr worked for LA Ink and drew maps of Europe over her arms until her skin dissolved into her veins. They’d sprinkle Percocets in the water, we’d skim the surface with our tongues as it fizzed. Or we’d bump into them down at the Cha Cha Lounge and creep up our alley together. Once, Lucy kept strolling with Carr until she strolled home alone in the morning. The next night, we watched Carr gyrate against a girl with bangs. She looked as bisexual as a plant. Lucy played up her buzz while I fought mine until I woke up, sweating. She wore her Dartmouth dropout status like a charm that kept guys buying the next round. I knew when a guy was actually checking out the girl to my right.

“Carr shined me,” she’d said. The musty bar drained the flavor out of my drink. The scotch tasted like smoke, the smoke tasted like scotch. I said, “She takes it up the ass.”

“Definitely,” Lucy said. “That’s what it is.” I wondered if I didn’t feel bad for her because she was rich. Lucy thought they were all fanatic Scientologists. “Carr’s just so LA,” I said. The next week, I was with her at the Scientology center taking a Dianetics seminar. Carr called for a ride when their cars were stolen off our street. Her laugh illuminated our house. “He’s residue,” she said. “I miss C right now. Too bad you scared that skank away, you schizo,” she said to me.

At Kabbalah, I learned only a percentage of reality can be determined by the senses, that the emotional reaction is the enemy, not the cause.

Why did you always lock me in the gondola, or make me ride with the lift bar up? It wasn’t fucking funny.

AA met in the attic of a bar on Sunset Boulevard, next door to the Roxy. Rumination was equally addicting.

When we were little you let my indoor cat out on cat vacation and promised you’d never do anything like that again.

Silver Lake was built around a reservoir. Cabins clustered around it, like skiers to the fire in the lodge. Everything was mosaic. Lights shimmered as if someone threw a handful of glitter across the mountain. Guitar music twinkled. The smog swirled in SOS patterns. When the air got bitter it was like sledding on inner tubes, before season opening. From a plane, it appeared as a porcelain village you plugged in while in their attics the hippies searched for something new to wear to the Mexican grill.

Lucy wouldn’t have eaten my cake before singing Happy Birthday without you coaxing her.

At Toastmasters, one woman’s Messages: Unsent speech analyzed a study about how men are more attracted to assaulted women than to bulimics. She mimed gagging herself with a toothbrush at the podium as a volunteer in the back counted her ums and pauses.

I checked my flu shot injection for tenderness. I actually didn’t go in to work at all. I took two Ativan, applied lavender oil, and called in sick.

I ran into RJ on our tech scout in San Bernadino. He was a cobbler growing old, watching from the horizon of the parking lot. Up close, he had a hoop through his eyebrow and a fade in his hair with steps. His face looked tarnished. Some friend of his was our stunt double. The friend gave me a cough drop. “So this is where you’re hiding,” RJ said. I had no idea he’d moved out to Lake Tahoe.

Lucy slept in t-shirts from fundraisers. Rich people could hang around in free clothes and not feel like poor people. She was good at fitting into the retro scene just enough without converting. She looped her burlap two-piece around our doorknob with a wind chime. We were both still vegans but I’d pranced around in my fur stole when she joined a group for fostering dogs. “I’m sure this fox is honored to spend the rest of his life with me,” I said. We drove straight to the Dime on Fairfax. At the Sunset Junction, a transient sidled up to us. “You ladies ever been with a homeless man?” He knuckled our window. Lucy laughed. “I don’t know about this one.” She gave him a twenty, the wine in her plastic cup. He started whimpering and dribbled on her lap. “He’s litrally crying,” she said, excavating the glove compartment for napkins. “I blew six hundred on this vintage dress,” she whispered. I said, “That’s dog food for a year.”

My free rent made me her chauffeur. At night, the city stared at me like an eye. The neon letters of bar signs dropped off like leaves when their bulbs fried out. Sometimes, the singer on the radio was simultaneously performing at the place we were driving past. I fantasized about writing perfume billboards into TV dramas. The overhangs of twisting roads were more dangerous than you’d think. Cars didn’t slow at the bends. In Malibu, we parked on the shoulder of the PCH. I liked bars on the seacliffs with appetizer menus. Lucy knew all of the security codes to empty mansions on the private beach. From my striped chair, sun zapped my eyelids like EKG lines until it flat lined.

When we were little, my parents took you with us to Malibu. We wanted to be lifeguards. We wanted the view from tower five—toothpaste waves, people rolling on towels. There was Fern, resenting she didn’t have her own friend to bring. There was my mother, her sunblocked nose, my father, a frying pan. A stranger’s son dumped a pail of sand on his face, miming suffocation. I thought, my parents will lie back down into the earth one day and ferment. If they die, I pictured receiving the phone call with you in walking distance.

I knew that was veal you made me swallow when I was drunk.

LA. You wouldn’t know anyone at a bar unless you called ahead.

“You’re exactly the same,” RJ said.

“Like what?”

“Like you’ll only dance to certain songs and shit.”


“So. Have you had your fifteen minutes yet?” I couldn’t believe some bozo hired him in Tahoe. Dave and Carr said ski instructor gigs up there were real competitive. Lucy and I met him at a hookah lounge in Atwater Village we once used for an indoor location. They usually charged twenty at the door to keep out the riff-raff but I knew the bouncer erasing a crossword who let us in. I told Lucy that I couldn’t get out of it. He made a big deal of holding the door for her like some type of matador. The air felt brittle. Passing headlights took the black out of the night.

We sat in a booth with curtains the color of organs. RJ came back balancing our drinks.

“Not so Beverly Hills 90210, right?” I said.

“Nobody here knows nobody else.” He drank his drink like it was full of sunbeams and dug around his skin as if for pouches that hadn’t been punctured. I almost thought he’d take out a needle. I wanted to feel sensation in my bad arm, feel the rush of it plunging off, yell, “Timber!”

He said, “You girls know anyone in Hollywood who wants to make a movie about my life?” He had some Italian accent. “I’ll trade you the rights for your drink.”

Lucy thought she was wasting her good outfit. I’d watched the way she interpreted herself in the mirror—am I a unicorn or an anteater? He ordered us three more whiskey-vodkas. When he asked where all her boyfriends were, I let her take my car home.

RJ brought it up. He said he hasn’t heard from you in a long time and you were probably making money as a surrogate in Miami. I told him the truth about the ski accident, about why I kicked you out of the Vermont apartment. I told him what happened when I fell on the dangerous maintenance trail, how it turned into a rock cliff, how I tried to pop my skis off. I was going to climb up, but my tips crossed. I said that I knew you watched the whole thing. RJ listened and believed you’d hang me out to dry. I said how with the first yank, I thought I’d lost the whole arm. My scream was a harp string ripping. I saw blood basking on the rock, like a mural, like someone had been taken out to the mountain and shot. I heard the grind of the chairlift, the wind biting off ends of words. I heard children giggling like in a ghost movie, bells, the hiss of frost. If I die, I thought, I don’t have to remember this stinging. RJ nodded and noted that at least my ski hadn’t sliced through my neck, like what had happened to Cricket Stevens. I pictured Lucy at the picnic tables, her bib unbuckled, peeling her lift ticket sticker to string the wires with her horseshoes. I wondered who saw me naked when the patrol snipped my snowsuit open and shot me up with cortisone. I didn’t believe voices with my eyes closed. RJ said waiting to be rescued on the slope, I’d probably felt like he had when he waited for his HIV test results.

“It’s sad that she’s so sadistic,” I said. “I almost feel bad for her.” I didn’t admit to him that I remember exactly what I was thinking—how could I allow her to let me take the fall again?

A guy I was dating couldn’t wrangle my shirt off. I couldn’t fasten my bra in front of strangers. “Sure,” my date nodded, “Like a stroke.” He was so Midwestern. I pretended I had to be up for an early call so he knew I wouldn’t go all pathetic on him. “So you think Lucy’s dad could get me a job on set? I’m trying to get my union days in.” Then he helped himself to a handful of my ass. Lucy’s theory is you’ve got to find the guys who just moved to LA, before they become corrupted. Then they will navigate the business the way you taught them and the more they succeed, the more they’ll need you instead of a Victoria’s Secret model.

I’m trying to stay hydrated. I’m taking more Ativan, fish oil, coconut water.

A psychic at the Grove mall stopped me by the jumping fountain. In the winter, they shot fake snow but I couldn’t find the guns. She told me that I leaked inner energy. The make-up lady on set had the same woman stop her among the street performers on the Promenade.

LA. Toastmasters. Don’t starve your body or fatten your body, so a man can’t really see you. Never believe you brought this on yourself. The speaker moved into her concluding paragraph. Next time, throw your keys as far as you can. He will run. He’d rather have your car than you! I took offense to this advice even though her theory seemed true. A car was worth more to the stranger with a switchblade than the strange girl.

LA. There was always a group of Mexican construction workers, in a better mood, guiding you into your parallel parking spot. If your show went into syndication, it was a way to leave footprints across the next century.

I couldn’t tell what RJ was on. “Where are all your friends?” He switched to my side of the booth.

“That was it.”

“You look like someone famous.” His hand rock-climbed my jaw. “All fancy in here.”

“You should lose that beard.”

“That mean you’ll put the moves on me?”

I took his ostrich egg. He showed me a picture in his wallet of his ex-girlfriend. “Isn’t she beautiful?” She wasn’t unbeautiful. Her face was mute, exanthema. He said she worked as a halfway house guard. He seemed down about her. I felt we were hovering over Mars, the only ones out there. I wanted it to be night, always.

“She reminds me of you.” He looked into my eyes. “You know, any girl I meet, I’m searching for a piece of you in.”

I said, “I need fresh air.” Then I was with him at a ski shop at Black Bear, banging at the salesman hiding inside to open early. He let us swerve off with rented equipment.

“Beam me up, Cali!” he war-whooped in his t-shirt and goggles. “How come the whole country doesn’t live here!”

The next day we were at the City Walk at Universal Studios, the Saddle Ranch mimosa brunch. He bought a thicker sweatshirt. I called in sick. “Always trying for that first Christmas-fire, right?” The day after he was going to see all the Hollywood Stars. I’d never had someone to hop the stars with. I left work. His face pitted when he saw how filthy Hollywood Boulevard was. “You know how they say you lose all your brain cells. I don’t think that. I think they go to whoever you were with until you see them again. Like right now, you don’t even feel it but you’re giving all my brain cells back to me.” He aimed his key fob to unlock the elevator to the parking garage.

“That’s not your car.”


I shuddered. I wanted him to go to college. Spell. He would’ve moved in to Lucy’s vacant room, my corners. My shakes were deep and it was like entering a warm house from the cold. I could feel each of my senses expanding. I could see him in more pronounced detail. I didn’t want him leaving.

“RJ, I’m freaking out. This pill was cut with something.”

“Just wait. I’m waiting with you.”

“RJ, make it stop.”

“Listen, when you get a good thought, you’ve got stick with it. Got me?”

At the airport, he wouldn’t stop clinging to my sleeve. He was meeting someone in Vegas to discuss hydroponics. “Last chance to marry this bridegroom.” His kiss was a pom-pom to my forehead. His eyes were teary and he was trembling. He bit his hand. I thought, why do I feel so connected to this unhygienic person? “Take care of yourself,” he said. “You look sick.” I had to shove him out of my passenger seat toward the tarmac. “Okay,” he said, with a joint between his lips. “Bye-bye, my blonderexic.” I knew the screws in his knee would set off the metal detectors. I felt him drifting to wherever I must keep him. Then it was all sealed away, like a mnemonic.

“Phew,” Lucy said, when I got home. “That kid was so annoying.”

My head throbbed and I carried a gallon of water to my bed.

I wanted good things for people. For RJ, I wanted good health. For Lucy, I wanted self-awareness. For myself, I wanted to live through my flu shot.

Lucy came home from the Dr. Scholl’s set. I was in my room with the clock radio up, about to go to sleep in my gym clothes so in the morning there would be no excuse.

“Look at you.” She sloshed in. “Are you praying?” I sat up off my forearms. “You’re crying? You’re crying.”

“I have a fever from my flu shot,” I said. I was sitting down inside myself. I stood. The thermometer plopped out of my mouth. She shook my tears off her hand. “You’ve got to get out of your head.” I hated when she used these phrases her therapist provided her, that she said things like that to people who wouldn’t say things like that to her.

She poked at the Band-Aid on my bicep like she found it in the pool. “Don’t touch it,” I said. “Stop that.”

Her father’s new show was premiering and she’d wanted to watch it together. She even bought me taro frozen yogurt. I thought about when I’d had the chicken pox and my aunt had brought me a canary.

“My going away party is tomorrow. You can’t be sick!” Lucy needed her friends to be mirror images of herself. She needed the version that she actually likes to be staring back at all times.

“We can go to Cedars Sinai. They’ll put me on an IV.” They would also pack relaxants into it if I asked the nurse. Lucy could order an upgrade to the special wing for celebrities and solicit empathy in the waiting room. I didn’t care anymore about being ridiculous. I tried mental-physical hybrid conditioning. I practiced emotional restriction, mindfulness. I even stood behind the podium at Toastmasters.

In the rough draft of my Messages: Unsent speech, I wrote this: We are taught the power of assertion but not the power of denial. You put something in me to carry that didn’t belong to me.

“Yes,” Lucy said. “I can drive you to Cedars Sinai!” like we’d just rolled doubles. Cedars Sinai in Beverly Hills Adjacent was my new destination. It was the place I was going to next.

LA. Living inside the world’s perception of immortal stars was, at first, cathartic.

Toastmasters seemed to encourage moving through anger, soaring over it. I’d noticed that the loudest are not the angriest, and that it’s not hard to become the things people accuse you of. Maybe I should have just told you and Marissa to move out here with us but after my accident I had every reason to change the locks.

But I will not nourish you. I will starve you until you die.

Lucy had the Lexus running in the driveway. She didn’t use the bathroom first. We moved back and forth across the country, started over, but where was the progress? I was talking around corners but trying to say this directly. There were distances, no breakups. A friend was an eternal connection, your friend for life. This was not just a Kabbalah theory. Keep convincing Lucy, Marissa, yourself, to hate me, that you didn’t do anything. Please just don’t tell me, C, that I made that night up.

This, I remembered clear as a flood: Vermont. I woke once in a fugue, to the crunch of you snapping your boots into your bindings, heading for the trees bent under the red moon. From the deck, I watched a set of sparrows sip the puddle of an icicle, runaways from the king of migration. They should have been sleeping. I watched the snow settle on your bare skin. You were only wearing my string bikini. You could have been break dancing in a strobe light, doing the mashed potato. I shouted from the deck that you’d go green on the inside, and you called, in a clogged-up voice: “The water’s warm! I’m not trying to kill myself, Heather!” Maybe I felt as terrified as you did when we were little. Maybe that’s always been your intention. But I knew then, as I still do, that all I want is for you to forgive yourself. Then your skis hit the snowmobile trail with a splash and you were lost in the dark, the echo of your voice leading your body, like you were an ancestor of yourself, and for so long, Casey, I believed you.